It’s not just white Britain that demonises Abu Hamza. After his mosque was raided by police, his own faith locked him out. Torcuil Crichton reports from Finsbury Park
Sunday Herald (England), Jan. 26, 2003
A one-eyed radical Muslim cleric with a hook for a hand, a venomous line in Islamic preaching and a burning belief that the Twin Towers was an inside job. You suspect that if chained and padlocked gates of the north London mosque, barred by its trustees since 150 officers from the Metropol itan Police raided the three-storey building on Monday morning, arrested seven men and recovered a stun gun, a CS gas canister, an imitation weapon, false ID cards, passports and other documents described as ‘suspicious’.
Long before the raid, the Finsbury Park mosque had become synonymous with a home-grown Islamic fundamentalism with dangerous links to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Now Hamza has become a national hate figure whose preaching is said to have drawn disaffected youths to the jihad. Today his bodyguards are young members of Al Muhajiroun, the Islamic fundamentalist organisation that claimed to have recruited 800 young fighters to Afghanistan.
In fact, only a few British Taliban were ever recruited, but the shoe bomb terrorist Richard Reid attended Hamza’s sermons, as did Djamel Beghal, accused of plotting terrorism in France, and Feroz Abbasi, one of three British Muslims now detained by the US at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Hamza has been questioned by police on suspicion of terrorism in the past but released without charge. The Yemeni authorities have requested his extradition, claiming he is linked to bomb plots there that his son and seven other young British Muslims were arrested for.
Today he tries to turn humiliation into defiance. On the street outside the mosque he leads Friday prayers for nearly 100 followers.
They are mostly young men, kneeling on their jackets in the middle of the road, bowing towards Mecca. They range from hulking figures in black leather jackets and Palestinian scarves to trainee lawyers wearing suits. There are a few children and women with their heads shrouded in black scarves, one embossed with a black-on-black Calvin Klein logo.
The press cameras whirr and, true to form, he spells out an uncomprom ising anti-Western rant. He attacks a society that accepts homosexuality, produces child abusers, prostitution and moneylenders and says the world would be a better place if Christians upheld the 10 Commandments and did not support Zionist Israel.
‘Who can be more of an evil-doer than those who stop people using a place of worship,’ he tells his audience. ‘It is like the life of Jesus, peace be on him. If they cannot attack the message, they attack the messenger.’
For an hour and a half he keeps the street circus going, taking prayers twice and fending off a media scrum.
After the press depart his rhetoric softens. ‘My agenda is for the Muslim world to unite,’ he says. ‘I am for integration and people living together, but I am not for the disintegration of Islam. If people were properly Christian then we would not cuddle in the streets but we would be comfortable with each other.’
Evil politicians, capitalism, Zionists and hypocrite Muslims are the targets of his uncompromising message. He has seen the pictures of the Twin Towers — to his engineer’s eye it is obvious they were demolished from inside. Detective Constable Stephen Oake, the police officer murdered two weeks ago, was a ‘guinea pig’ in the hands of politicians and forced to act against Christian morals.
Hamza is unlikely to ever preach inside his mosque again. He has been ousted after a long power struggle within a place of worship which has been torn apart by factionalism and in-fighting since its earliest days in a flat a stone’s throw from Highbury Stadium.
After the prayers and the street theatre are over, and the Abu Hamza brigade has departed, two elderly men approach. They are eager to tell the real story of Finsbury Park mosque.
‘This is not about terrorism, it is about who controls the mosque,’ says Ali Rashid, a Mauritius ex-pat who remembers praying there when it was simply a room in a house on the same street in the 1980s.
A visit by Prince Charles proved instrumental in its development and funding from the Saudi Royal family, administered through the Prince’s Trust, paid for a new building. It took five years and £800,000 to build and opened its doors in September 1993.
It was just a few years until the first major fall-out between the mosque’s trustees and its management committee, which ran the building day-to-day.
Mufti Bargatallaâ one of the original trustees who is now involved in piecing the management of the building back together, says a Bengali faction wrested control of the mosque. There were allegations of funds being misapprop riated and the ugly affair ended with the management committee being sacked and the trustees serving exclus ion orders on its members.
Into the power vacuum stepped Abu Hamza. By then — early 1996 — the ethnic population around Finsbury Park was changing. Many of the Asian families who started the project had moved to other areas of London to be replaced by North Africans and Arabs and the mosque needed an imam who could preach in languages other than Urdu and Bengali.
The Egyptian-born Hamza stepped in to preach once a fortnight for two years. His rhetoric, his charisma and his reputation as a mujahidin drew young people through the door. As his following grew so did his influence in the mosque, which he reinforced with intimidation.
‘He saw empty ground and he colonised it,’ says Bargatalla. ‘There were exclusion zones and closed areas of the mosque that people could not go to.
‘Trustees were physically thrown out of the mosque. We were being threatened and bullied but when we went to the police they said they did not want to risk their men,’ says Bargatalla.
At one stage, he claims, one of the trustees was physically attacked by masked men inside the mosque while teaching children. ‘That is the extent of the violence against the trustees,’ says Bargatalla. ‘We tried to get him arrested but he was never apprehended. It looked as if the police were leaving Abu Hamza there as a policy to catch others. I asked Scotland Yard ‘what are you doing?’ There was a suspicion that there was another agenda operating.’
They may have ignored the fears of Bargatalla and others for years, but when police action did come it was decisive. The invasion of the mosque may have enraged Muslim sensibilities — and the revelation that officers entered prayer areas, albeit with plastic coverings on their shoes, provoked further fury — but the majority of the community have little sympathy for Hamza himself.
Most regard him as a lunatic, while some describe him as the Arthur Scargill of Islamic politics. ‘He reinforces the stereotype image of Muslims as uncompromising, aggressive and fundamentalist,’ says Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. ‘He is being used and manipulated by the intelligence agencies of several countries.’
Whatever purpose Hamza served for the police or security services became redundant on Monday morning when the mosque was raided. The keys were returned to the trustees on Thursday evening and they closed the building for refurbishment.
Now there are plans for security guards at the door to keep the Abu Hamza brigade at bay and the trustees hope that worshippers who voted with their feet and now pray at the neighbouring mosque on Seven Sisters Road can be drawn back.
‘We want to make this mosque like all the others in the country, a place of worship not a place of hate,’ says Bargatalla.
To enter the mosque for Friday prayers worshippers will now have to cross the Abu Hamza picket line. The cleric and his followers have promised to hold sermons outside every Friday from now on.
‘We will not be browbeaten, we will not allow any government to silence us,’ says Hamza before he leaves the scene.
‘Other Muslims have forgotten the message of the Koran. We are here to say the truth.’